A Better Way to Manage Organic Waste in Massachusetts

Apr 10, 2012 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Creative Commons image courtesy of BenandAsho on Flickr

We throw away a lot of food. Sometimes the scraps are inedible, like banana peels. Sometimes we forget about things in the refrigerator until we notice the smell. And sometimes our eyes are just bigger than our stomachs. Regardless of the reason, a lot of food scraps end up in our trash and ultimately the landfill. This is a wasted opportunity to realize environmental and economic benefits by using food scraps to improve soil health and generate renewable energy.

By diverting food scraps to other uses, such as generating energy and creating compost, we avoid the need to expand landfills in the state or transport waste long distances to out-of-state facilities. When food scraps and other organic matter decompose in landfills, they produce methane gas, a potent contributor to climate change. So diverting food scraps from landfills also helps us meet the state’s aggressive greenhouse-gas emission reduction goals.

To realize these benefits, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is supporting public and private investment in a new kind of infrastructure for managing organic materials. But for this new infrastructure to succeed, DEP and the project developers that will build and operate this infrastructure need to convince the public that food scraps are not garbage, but something else entirely.

The DEP is currently working on an action plan for managing Massachusetts’s organic waste. The state needs a plan, because it has set lofty goals to divert organic material from landfill disposal to be used in other processes. The state’s draft Solid Waste Master Plan calls for diverting 35% of food waste, estimated to be about 350,000 tons of material per year. This goal is echoed by the Clean Energy Results Program, which sets a further goal of 50 megawatts of installed capacity of renewable energy from aerobic and anaerobic digestion facilities by 2020. And let’s not forget the proposal to ban commercial food waste from Massachusetts landfills in 2014. These are great goals, because diverting organic material out of the solid waste stream provides opportunities for economic development that can improve the environmental impacts of solid waste management, and now DEP is developing the plan to make sure we get there.

The plan aims to ensure that organic “waste” isn’t wasted in a landfill. It calls for a few things:

  • Gathering better and more current information about sources of food waste,
  • Providing funding and technical assistance to work out the logistics of separating food waste from the actual trash, and
  • Working with haulers to move this material to appropriate processing facilities.

There are also provisions for funding and technical assistance to facilitate the construction of additional processing infrastructure, like anaerobic digestion (AD) facilities, and to develop good markets for the resulting products.

Organics diversion presents an economic opportunity for cash-strapped municipalities to save money through reduced trash fees. It also allows developers – municipal or private – to generate revenue by using “waste” organics as inputs for marketable products like compost and other soil amendments and as a source of clean, renewable heat and electricity. At a time when municipal budgets are facing historic shortfalls and municipalities are seeking means of both cutting costs and creating revenue, this is surely a good thing.

DEP’s draft action plan is a progressive, proactive approach to organics management, but it’s missing something very important. It provides much-needed support and direction for people and organizations that are already proponents of better organic material management and will help project proponents navigate the technical and regulatory processes to achieve success. But what about the majority of people who likely have no idea that the DEP is interested in doing something dramatically different with organic waste?

This action plan and DEP efforts to date on this issue do little to address the very real need for public engagement and outreach to help citizens and businesses understand the good reasons for organics diversion. These include:

  • Mitigating greenhouse gas emissions through improved methane utilization;
  • Generating renewable energy from anaerobic digestion; and
  • Producing nutrient-rich soil amendments through composting.

The intersection of waste management and energy development is more complex than either of these individual business sectors taken on their own. For instance, energy facilities such as anaerobic digesters, which use “waste” materials as inputs to generate energy, face the siting hurdles typically encountered by both energy and waste facilities. Public concerns with other renewable energy technologies, such as wind and solar, have emerged relatively recently, but communities and individuals have been fighting against landfills and transfer stations for a very long time.

Today, forward-thinking people and businesses are beginning to talk about “materials management” rather than “waste management,” and those on the inside know what we mean by that. But most people don’t currently make the distinction, especially when the materials in question are leftover food and other organics that can rot. In the case of a proposed anaerobic digestion facility, the result is often a contested siting process. While AD proponents see facilities that will produce clean energy and environmentally beneficial soil products, opponents are concerned about siting waste incinerators, trash transfer stations, and toxic sludge.

The DEP, along with other state agencies such as the Department of Agriculture and Department of Energy Resources, is pushing to change the way “waste” materials are managed in Massachusetts. This is a good thing for economic development and the environmental performance of our materials-based economy. However, many people will not readily accept the subtle changes in regulatory definitions that distinguish separated materials from mixed solid waste. With these changes, materials that formerly had to be permitted as solid waste (trash) and processed at a permitted solid waste facility are no longer legally considered trash, so they can be processed at a composting or AD facility without a solid waste permit. I’m very happy this distinction is being made for organic material, but I know that many other people will consider this just another form of garbage disposal.

An action plan to encourage better organic materials management through diversion to composting and digestion needs to include significant resources to engage stakeholders around the Commonwealth to have open and honest conversations about the wide-ranging benefits, the potential pitfalls, and what everyone needs to know to avoid problems.

There is no reason to continue to dump organic material into landfills and many reasons to get everyone on board with using this material to generate more economic value and more environmental benefits for Massachusetts. But we can’t just “dot the i’s and cross the t’s” on the permit applications; we have to engage with people and navigate the changes in a collaborative and productive way. Diverting organic material from landfills can lead to a host of economic, environmental, and community benefits, but anyone who thinks changing the system will be as easy as selecting a site, telling the neighbors about the benefits, and awaiting approval and praise is in for a rude awakening. CLF Ventures looks forward to working with communities and project proponents to engage in open, clear discussions of the real impacts and benefits of organics management facilities so that all stakeholders share the same understanding of the issues and speak with the same terminology.

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